- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

In his annual preseason address Thursday, Washington Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld said his relationship with Gilbert Arenas is “strong,” a week after the All-Star guard criticized the team over his failed comebacks the past two seasons.

In an interview with The Washington Times earlier this month, Arenas criticized the organization for mishandling his two knee rehabilitations in 2007 and another during the 2008-09 season, saying he felt team officials didn’t hold him back because they were motivated by ticket sales.

Grunfeld dismissed the notion of any conflict between Arenas and the rest of the team, saying, “I talked to Gilbert about the situation, and obviously you get frustrated when things aren’t going well, but the bottom line is he’s healthy now. This is his life and what he loves to do.”

After working all summer in Chicago with trainer Tim Grover, Arenas is back in the District and 100 percent for the first time since tearing the lateral meniscus in his left knee in April 2007. He’s set to lead the Wizards back from a 19-63, injury-plagued season in which he was sidelined for all but two games. Grunfeld is eager to see Arenas do so and said his relationship with the three-time All-Star is as solid as ever.

“Our relationship is strong. He has a very competitive nature,” Grunfeld said. “This is my seventh year with Gilbert. He was the first guy I signed when I first got here. He was only 19 years old at the time. I’ve seen a great change in him over the years. … I haven’t seen him this excited in a very, very long time. He’s excited about what’s going on. He’s about the environment; he’s ready to get going.”

In addition to Arenas, the Wizards will start training camp with center Brendan Haywood and shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson back at full strength. Both were sidelined much of last season.

Grunfeld also said he is pleased with the depth that guards Mike Miller and Randy Foye and center Francisco Oberto bring.

“We feel really good. We think our roster is as deep as it’s been since we’ve been here [in June 2003],” Grunfeld said. “Our players are all very versatile. They can play multiple positions. We have really improved our outside shooting, improved our depth. We really have size again, which we didn’t have last year.”

Grunfeld described the feel of the team as “energized.” After the hiring of coach Flip Saunders in April, younger players like fifth-year forward Andray Blatche, third-year guard Nick Young and second-year center JaVale McGee dedicated themselves to improving their skills and conditioning. And Grunfeld said his more experienced players also have prepared to enter training camp in great shape and with high expectations.

Saunders said Tuesday the Wizards can compete with the elite teams in the Eastern Conference. Team captains Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler have taken it a step further, publicly stating their championship aspirations.

“Flip has added a new energy, a new professionalism,” Grunfeld said. “And all of our players are in this together. We’re expecting to win. I haven’t been as excited as I am now in a very, very long time.”

When they arrive for camp at Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond on Tuesday, the Wizards have some questions to answer, including who starts at shooting guard (Stevenson, Miller, Foye or Young) who backs up Haywood at center (Oberto or McGee) and who rounds out Saunders’ projected eight-player rotation.

Grunfeld said he expects those issues to be sorted out relatively soon.

“I always say the players will tell us what to do by their performance,” Grunfeld said. “Competition’s good. Nothing is ever guaranteed in this league. Everyone’s going to have to compete and earn their minutes to be in the rotation. I think we have 13, 14 guys who on any given night you can put them in there and they can be effective players for us - and that’s a good thing.”

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